This is a big deal. Work will wait, schools will close—all in the name of deer season. Can you feel the wind blow out of the northwest? Oil up your guns. It's opening day.
In the pre-dawn darkness I haul my carcass up the same hill I've climbed for more than 30 years. It's not a long walk, but it's a steep one. I like the spot "up top" because it overlooks a bench deep in the woods where bucks like to bed. It's also close to national park land, which spells "sanctuary" to me. Tapping a little honeyhole like this next to un-huntable land has worked magic for generations.
About halfway up, I pause to keep the lather to a minimum. But it's too late, as the bead of sweat that runs down my back reminds me. I remove my hat and wipe my brow, and my mind wanders to all the bucks we've killed here over the years. The spike I shot over a scrape in muzzleloader season; my oldest son Anthony's first deer; Uncle Steve's 14-pointer and a wide-racked sucker that looked like it belonged in Texas; my brother Marc's two 150-inch whoppers; and the double-mainbeam freak I tagged the day before Thanksgiving just a few years ago—all were taken on this hillside.
Then I think about all the brutes killed by hunters in places that grow bigger bucks than our little piece of the Old Dominion will ever produce. Beginners, one-week-a-year types, diehards, eccentrics—I see every hunter's face, go over every account I've read in magazines in a 10-year span. A choice location is almost always part of the equation. But surely there is chance involved, too. No matter how smart or how persistent we might be, Lady Luck always has her say. How else to explain the first-timers who drop Booners on opening day?
Yes, that's the ticket, that's the key that helps me put one foot in front of the other, sweat be damned. It doesn't matter where one hunts, only that he does so. Luck can shine her light on any of us, anywhere. It doesn't matter whether it's our first step into the woods or if we've spent half our lives there, we need only hunt to join the fraternity. Still, I can't help thinking a nice buck would ice the endeavor. Why can't this be the year I drop a Booner?
So I climb, anxious with the knowledge that it could happen here, now. I'll never know for sure unless I get up top and settle in before the bucks show up after a night of feeding. As inveterate gamblers like to say, "Ya gotta be there for the roll."
Find the Hotspots
by Mike Hanback
The start of the rut can vary by days or a week depending on region. Determine whether the "chase stage" is on by checking muddy fields or creek bottoms for big (buck) and small (doe) tracks that indicate running, then set up in an area like one described below.
Don't hunt over rubs.
Hunt funnels along buck travel routes between feeding and bedding areas laced with lots of rubs that indicate lots of deer traffic to up your odds of seeing bucks.
Transition zones are good bets.
Bucks prowl "break lines" between pines and hardwoods, rubbing and scraping as they move. Same goes for transitions between crops and woods: If you determine bucks are prowling the edge between those two zones, set a stand and sit tight.
The weather is your friend.
My research suggests bucks rut hardest when the temperature hovers between 25-30 degrees. Be sure to check scrapes one to two days after it rains or snows. If they've been pawed, hunt them.
Find fence lines.
Those that link crops with a point of woods 100-200 yards away can't be ignored. No good trees for a stand? Set up a blind on a downwind edge where the fence dumps into the woods. "Small" is the operative word—don't build a Taj Mahal.
Establish a "pressure plan."
Since everybody and his brother hunts the rut, a thick-cover draw a half-mile or more off a crop field might produce results, even in the absence of rut sign. Once guns boom, bucks will find the sanctuary and pile into it.
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Like the fossilized skeletons of its ancestors displayed in the Smithsonian, a 12-foot alligator can be scary even when it's dead—something that Shooting Illustrated's Adam Heggenstaller learned in person during a gator hunt in Florida. Read More »
Could 2011 be the year of the work truck? If so, the Ram Tradesman is ready to clock in. Equipped with a juiced-up HEMI® engine.... Read More »
307 5/8 inches
Boone and Crockett Club official measurement of the largest fair-chase buck ever killed—taken by Tony Luvstuen on Sept. 29, 2003, with a muzzleloader during Iowa's early youth muzzleloader season.
Field-dressed weight of a whitetail buck taken by Carl J. Lenander Jr. in 1926 near Tofte, Minn.
Most record-book entries in Wis., all-time.
Most record-book entries in Ill., all-time.
The cackling goose, a smaller-bodied goose prominent in Canada and Alaska, is a tundra-breeder with considerably more black plumage than the Canada. At one time, the cackling goose was considered the smallest subspecies of the Canada, but is now recognized as a separate species.